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updated 10:27 PM CDT, Sep 8, 2016

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Willingness to provide funding key to state's life sciences future

Although this state is home to a world class life sciences and biotech non-profit sector, Washington's Legislature seems to only toy with understanding that being competitive with other states in the quest for pre-eminence in that industry requires demonstrating a willingness to spend state dollars.

That's likely at least part of the reason for the strong bi-partisan support among the lawmakers for a bill that would have put in place the essential final piece of a cancer research fund: an administrative body to begin planning grants, accepting donations and basically letting the fund become operational.

But one of the issues left undone when the Legislature adjourned at the end of March was final action on the bill, HB2679, that would have consolidated the cancer-research fund that was born of a bold idea in the 2015 Legislature into the Life Science Discovery Fund (LSDF). Intriguingly the same legislature left LSDF without a future by defunding it.

The bill was approved overwhelmingly by the Democrat-controlled House and passed out of the Senate committee and sent to the Ways and Means Committee, which has to approve bills that carry an appropriation. The bill languished there in the final days and died with the end of the session.

The LSDF-related bill, sponsored primarily by Democratic Rep. Jeff Morris, was to create a new Center of Excellence for Life Science and Cancer Research, to be overseen by LSDF.

The cancer-research-fund bill itself is designed to provide $20 million a year for the next 10 years with $10 million to come from state funds that can be released only after commitment of a "non-state match" of $10 million. The lawmakers appropriated $5 million to launch the fund, called CARE, which needs a board to oversee it and a contract with a non-profit designated to administer it before it can actually go into effect and begin considering grants.

So the provisions of the legislation creating the cancer fund are still in place, waiting to be implemented, and in fact Gov. Jay Inslee is in the process of selecting the 13-member board required to be named by July 1, according to the legislation.

The LSDF bill died at the end of last session and would have to be introduced again in 2017, in the event Morris should decide to take another run at employing LSDF as administrative entity

A life sciences ecosystem is important for the state and an ecosystem is supported by numerous pillars. In Washington, the approach of the lawmakers has been to take down the pillars, specifically removing the state's R&D tax credit for life science firms and ending the funding for LSDF, which was created a decade ago to provide funding for life-science startups, both in research and in commercialization.

As former Gov. Christine Gregoire put it: "We are in fierce competition with other areas but, unfortunately, as a state, we have gone in the wrong direction by eliminating the research and development tax credit that supports early stage companies and defunding LSDF."

The cancer-research fund is viewed by the life sciences industry as restoring a pillar and all have indicated their support for the fund. But those life science leaders also share the view that the $10 million a year of state funds that it provides is merely a start, particularly given the support other states have stepped up to provide. What could be considered the other end of the state-support spectrum from Washington is Massachusetts, where a 10-year $1 billion dollar plan to support life sciences is now in place.

Gregoire, who as Washington's Attorney General led the fight that brought millions in tobacco money to the states then as governor led the effort to create LSDF as a vehicle to fund life science innovations, called the new cancer-research fund "an essential building block for a vibrant life sciences sector."

Gregoire, newly named to the board of The Hutch and thus soon to make her mark from inside the industry, addedwith respect to the cancer fund: "It can do a lot of good for our researchers and advance the work being done in areas where we have a unique advantage, including immunotherapy. The cancer research fund is just one part of it and the state needs to continue its targeted role or we risk losing our talent and the ability to bring cures to people faster."

Part of the pressure on the states has come about because of what had become, in recent years, a trend of NIH grants that have stayed fairly constant while purchasing power for those grants has declined yearly.

In fact, this state has always had a healthy share of NIH grants, totaling about $230 million the past fiscal year with $94.8 million to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, $71.8 million to the University of Washington and $29.3 million for the Benaroya Research Institute.

As to LSDF itself, because it is currently managing nearly three dozen grants toward their completion, it will still be in operation, if greatly reduced in staff and perhaps board, by the time of the nest legislative session, so it remains as a possible experienced administrative body for the board now being appointed to contract with to guide the cancer fund.

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